WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. - For the third time in four years, the Ephs of Williams College and the Blue Jays of Johns Hopkins University squared off in the NCAA Tournament. After suffering a 3rd Round, 2OT loss in 2013, the Ephs overcame the Blue Jays in 2014 during regular time in the National Semifinals. This time, however, the venue was not a neutral site, as the Ephs welcomed the Baltimore-based team to Cole Field on Saturday afternoon to determine who would advance to Sunday's Quarterfinal round.
After falling behind in the first half after a clinical finish by Ana Bengoechea, the Ephs came charging back in the latter stages of the first half, before completing their comeback in the second, with goals from Kristina Alvarado and Sarah Sciré to see the Ephs (18-0-2) into the NCAA Quarterfinals for the 3rd straight year and sending the Blue Jays (17-3-2) packing back to Maryland, without a chance to reach the National Semifinal for a second time in three years.
The Blue Jays dominated the early proceedings, attacking relentlessly down the Ephs' defensive flanks.
They finally converted one of their chances, as Bailey Monaco burst towards the end line on the right side, before cutting back onto her left foot and zipping in a low cross to the near post. Ana Bengoechea raced in, beating her defender to the ball and struck it first-time past Olivia Barnhil in goal.
After some savvy substitutions, the Ephs looked much more dangerous, and Alvarado finally nabbed the Ephs their equalizer in the 39th minute.
The Ephs' leading scorer once again was the provider, as Kristi Kirshe found the perfect through ball to match Alvarado's run. The sophomore burst through the back-line with only Clara Aaranguren left to beat, and she calmly slotted her finish past the senior goalkeeper.
Taking their momentum into halftime, the Ephs came out in the second-half on the front foot, and were the first to strike through a well-worked team goal, finished off by Sciré.
Evan Gancedo was the recipient of a failed Blue Jay clearance, and she marvelously played Audrey Thomas through the Blue Jay defensive line. Though the senior captain could have attempted a shot of her own, the pacey striker showed great poise, rolling the ball across the face of goal and into the path of her strike partner Sciré to tap in at the far post.
After the game, Sciré pointed to her teammate, Kirshe, as the person who inspired her game-winning goal:
"What helped me the most today was being able to see how Kirshe, who plays my position, was using her bodying, her physicality, out on the field: which way she was turning and opening up on the field," said Scire. "In the second half, I just tried to do what she had been doing out there, and that really helped me in the second half."
Though the Ephs came out on top, the Blue Jays were the more dangerous side in the first 20 minutes, and foreshadowed their opening goal just before the ten-minute mark.
A dangerous cross into the box from Monaco bounced its way to the far side of the penalty area, where Kristen Hori was there to meet it, but the midfielder's rifled effort toward the top-corner zipped marginally high and wide of the target, allowing Barnhill to breathe a sigh of relief.
Six minutes later, however, the Blue Jays had the opener, with Bengoechea converting a similar cross from Monaco.
In the 22nd minute, the Blue Jays were inches away from doubling their lead, while the Ephs had yet to recover from going behind a goal.
Begoenchea again was the recipient of the chance, as she won the ball back in the Ephs' defensive-third. With Barnhill off her line, the Blue Jay goal-scorer took a hit from deep in the midfield. Though her shot had a frantically back-tracking Barnhill beaten, the senior Blue Jay couldn't quite beat Barnhill's left post, as the ball bounced off the woodwork and into the goalkeeper's welcoming arms.
After this, the Eph attack finally sprang to life, and they went on a hunt for an equalizer, only to be denied twice in the 31st minute.
First, a Gancedo cross from the left ricocheted out to Jacqueline Simeone on the edge of the area. The junior midfielder put her laces through it, but a well-timed trailing leg prevented the shot from making it all the way to Aaranguren.
Shortly after Simeone's chance, Alvarado got on the end of an Alison Lu cross, but skied her first-time attempt in front of goal agonizingly over the bar.
Eight minutes later, however, the Ephs' agony was relieved, as Alvarado atoned for her error in front of goal with a clinical finish to the bottom corner.
With only a few minutes left before the halftime whistle, Kirshe almost gave the Ephs the lead.
Alvarado swapped rolls with her senior counterpart, as she orchestrated the chance this time around, putting the ball on a platter for the Ephs' all-time leading scorer. Kirshe volleyed the ball toward net, where it looked like it had beaten the keeper and possibly crossed the line, but Aaranguren recovered quickly enough to paw the ball away from the goalmouth.
The Ephs picked up right where they left off in the second, coming on strong, and Thomas had several chances go begging before Sciré's game-winner. The senior had a shot saved by Aaranguren, before she then flashed another opportunity wide of the post.
Under all the Eph pressure, however, the Blue Jays' resolve finally broke for a second time, and Sciré's first career NCAA Tournament goal won't be one she soon forgets, securing the Ephs' place in Sunday's Sectional Final.
"Playing Johns Hopkins is huge for our program," praised Eph head coach Michelyne Pinard of the contest after the game. "It's just an unvelievable inter-regional rivalry that has developed over the last 4 years, and we are so thankful for it. They push us to be better, and we do that for them too."
With the win, the Ephs keep their 56-game unbeaten streak on Cole Field alive, as well as their undefeated season, and they will again put both those streaks on the line, when they face off against Messiah on Sunday afternoon for a place in the National Semifinal.
It will be only the second meeting in the two teams' histories, and their only other meeting came in the regular season in 2011, when the Falcons triumphed over the Ephs by a 1-0 margin.
"Our players have been training and playing their entire lives for these moments, for tomorrow. We are going to try to win every moment," commented Pinard on tomorrow's Quarterfinal bout with Messiah.
"We brought a different energy today," added Sciré. "Having support from our sidelines here at home really pushes you through these big games. It keeps us going, and it's a huge advantage. We'll hope to use that tomorrow too.
Kickoff is scheduled for 1 PM EST.